I’ve been grinning like a possum when I hear Stringbean’s Run Little Rabbit Run on Sirius/XM, from Jeff White’s Right Beside You. It’s a blistering traditional bluegrass treatment of one of String’s “big hits”. The CD arrived in the mailbox, and as I hoped, the entire album is just as great. It’s a mix of fresh and familiar, with ten of the twelve numbers in traditional bluegrass style.
Jeff sings in a smooth, soft tenor. Since his initial 1996 White Album he has gained power and timbre. This excellent recording (at Vince Gill’s home studio) lets you hear Jeff open up and beller a little at times!
Charlie Cushman, Michael Cleveland, Barry Bales and Jeff’s D-18 provide DRIVING traditional bluegrass backbone throughout. Laura Weber Cash sings and fiddles on a couple of songs. Jeff’s boss/friend of 25 years, Vince Gill, is on board with mandolin, guitar and harmony. Bluegrass royalty guest on mandolin, Dobro and harmony: Dan Tyminski, Ronnie McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Shawn Camp, Cheryl White, Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, and Bekka Bramlett of Vince Gill’s band.
Now that Jeff is “Seck” in The Earls of Leicester, all the Earls join him on Flatt & Scruggs version of I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow. Perfect, of course.
I really liked the mix of songs. There isn’t a clunker or “skip-ahead” cut. All twelve feature solid picking and singing with lots of original ideas. There are hot licks galore.
Run Little Rabbit and Dock Boggs’ Wise County Jail become natural bluegrass pieces with Jeff’s arrangements. Wise County swings like a Charlie Poole or Jimmy Rodgers “rounder” piece as it cooks along.
Jeff’s fine older songs get fresh interpretations here, including Blue Trail of Sorrow (recorded by AKUS), The Cold Hard Facts (a Del hit, co-written with Ronnie), and Carry Me Across the Mountain (from Dan Tyminski’s solo album, co-written with John Pennell and Billy Smith).
Right Beside You and the banjo-less but lusciously harmonized Another Road showcase Jeff’s latest penmanship (with co-writers Alan Bartram, Bekka Bramlett and Tom Britt).
Rounding out the collection are the Monroe/Wiseman duet Traveling Down This Lonesome Road (Del on tenor), a key-of-B-bluegrassified Climbin’ Up A Mountain (written by Tim O’Brien), and the Buck White mandolin jam favorite, Buck’s Run, with Ronnie and Vinnie McCoury on twin mandolins.
Jeff has worked for years with Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains. He co-produced their Down the Old Plank Road albums. They join Jeff, Laura and the bluegrassers for a dreamy, fairy-woodlands version of Pretty Saro to close out the CD.
Jeff is one of those stalwarts who provide bluegrass “glue,” without having to be a star. He’s among those super-talents who make the country, Celtic and Americana bands RESPECT bluegrass skills. If you don’t know much about Jeff, he:
- is the bluegrass pride of North Manchester, Indiana
- was a member of The Johnsons who won the Kentucky Fried Chicken bluegrass band contest in 1979 (remember THOSE days?!)
- was an early member of AKUS
- has stood beside Vince Gill providing pedigreed bluegrass singing and guitar skills for decades
- was a member of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band
- is one of those reliable bluegrass giants around Nashville for whatever, whenever — a “go-to” guy who knows who else to call
- is a mentor – producing several of Michael Cleveland’s albums
- was even selected by Earl and Louise Scruggs to work some of Earl’s final tours
Jeff is a happy, supportive sideman. He’s calm, low-key, funny, friendly, and to paraphrase Stuart Smalley of SNL, “doggone it, people like him!” Here, the ultimate sideman is eagerly supported by other top sidemen.
And wow! these sidemen and women are having fun. Michael and Laura pull off some twin fiddles on Blue Trail that might’ve had Monroe signing ‘em up as the best he ever heard. Vince radiates bluegrass joy blowing out the tenor on Climbing Up. Michael “salutes” Jason Carter on the first half of his break on Cold Hard Facts, then peels off and finishes his own way. Charlie is throwing off new sparks on everything — he is more than the top Scruggs disciple. Cheryl White tenors Carry Me Across at her bluegrassiest. Maybe it’s just my wishful thinking, but Jerry Douglas’ tone seems thicker, more like Josh Graves – perhaps influenced by the Earls’ success? Whatever, I like it.
It’s cool to hear Jeff sing Del’s 1996 hit, and then Del sings tenor on the next cut – Traveling Down. Nice sequencing.
Now where are you gonna find a solid traditional bluegrasser who can do a fine “new country” song like Another Road, and also turn Run Little Rabbit Run into a bluegrass barn-burner? Where do you find lyrics like “Big eyed rabbit looks mighty bold, yes by Ned I’m a’ headin’ for my hole” followed soon by “What makes a person run this way, there’s a hundred reasons I should stay”? Jeff White Right Beside You is where.
Terrific musicianship, top-quality production, and astounding song selection — Right Beside You ought to be nominated for Recorded Event of 2016. Traditional bluegrass remains safe in these hands.